How much longer has Gordon Brown got to turn things around for Labour? And if he fails, who might replace him? Here's my column from today's Newcastle Journal.
Last Saturday, I wrote in this column that despite Labour’s abysmal performance in the local election, I did not detect any appetite in the party for another change of leadership.
For now, I am sticking to that. In spite of Labour’s current dreadful plight, the party as a whole remains overwhelmingly loyal to Gordon Brown and desperately wants to see him succeed.
At the same time, however, there is a growing awareness that things cannot go on like this indefinitely, and that there may come a point where a change has, however reluctantly, to be made.
Mr Brown, in other words, is now on notice. Unless he can demonstrate that he is still the one to turn things around, the pressure on him to do the decent thing will become insurmountable.
The past week has brought no respite for the government. Last Thursday’s local election carnage was followed by Boris Johnson’s totemic victory over Ken Livingstone in London in the early hours of Saturday morning.
More damaging still was Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander’s decision to back a referendum on Scottish independence, almost certainly without Mr Brown’s approval.
The potential longer-term consequences of that announcement are worthy of a column in itself, but the short-term impact was to make it look like the Prime Minister had lost control of his own party.
Yesterday, the polling organisation You Gov piled yet deeper humiliation on Mr Brown as its latest survey showed the Tories 26 points in front, with Labour on its lowest rating ever at 23pc.
Estimates vary as to how much time Mr Brown has left in which to turn the situation around. Some say a year, some say as little as three or four months.
My own take on the matter is that there will need to be evidence that the crisis has bottomed out and the situation begun to move back in Labour’s favour by the time of the autumn conferences.
Furthermore, by next May’s local elections, there will need to be proof that Labour is at least on the road to recovery, back within touching distance of the Tories in terms of overall share of the vote.
If neither of those things happen, I think it entirely plausible that Mr Brown will fall on his own sword. The one thing he has always been is a party man.
So who might take over? Well, the one consolation for Gordon in yesterday’s You Gov poll is that it showed that any other leader – including South Shields MP David Miliband – would do even worse.
This bears out my own view that this crisis is not primarily about personalities, but about Labour’s collective failure to articulate a new vision capable of re-enthusing the electorate.
It follows from what I have said thus far that in my view, replacing Mr Brown with another old-stager from the Cabinet would be a completely pointless exercise.
The name most mentioned in this regard is Jack Straw, but he would carry all of the baggage of having served in the Blair-Brown Cabinet since the start, as well having been Foreign Secretary at the time of the Iraq invasion.
Skipping a generation has a far greater potential appeal, and overwhelmingly the name on people’s lips in this context is Mr Miliband.
The other young hopefuls, James Purnell, Andy Burnham and Ed Miliband, fall into the next-leaders-but-one category, while Ed Balls would simply be Mr Brown without the gravitas.
The main advantage of having a leader from the thirty- and forty-something age-band is that it would indicate that the party was looking ahead and moving on from the now seemingly discredited Blair-Brown era.
That said, none of the “next generation” candidates are exactly over-endowed with charisma, and if they do have any fresh ideas, they have not exactly been much in evidence thus far.
What, then, about a backbench heavyweight - someone who could combine experience with the appearance of change, by virtue of not having been party to the debacle of the Brown premiership.
Of the obvious contenders, Charles Clarke has made too many foolish outbursts and hence too many enemies, while David Blunkett has made too many personal errors of judgement.
Potentially the most promising “change candidate” is Darlington MP Alan Milburn, whose still-youthful appearance belies his five years’ Cabinet experience.
More importantly, he alone among Labour’s big-hitters has demonstrated an appetite for thinking outside the box. Whether he actually wants the job is unclear, but in my view, this could be his time.
But while the election of Mr Milburn would represent a shift back towards a more “Blairite” agenda, another, riskier option would be to make a conscious shift to the left.
The man for that task would be Jon Cruddas, whose thoughtful campaign for the deputy leadership last year now appears prophetic in its attacks on the intellectual emptiness of New Labour.
There is also a case to be made for a woman, given that Mr Brown has been criticised for his inability to “empathise” with voters in the way that David Cameron appears to be able to do.
The difficulty is that none of the available women seem particularly empathetic. Indeed the likes of Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper are even more prone to New Labour-style hectoring than their male counterparts.
After reading this far, you might think that, with no single candidate entirely free from drawbacks, the party would be better off sticking with the devil they know.
But politics doesn’t really work like that. Unless Mr Brown can recover, there will come a point when Labour MPs start to take the view that it’s his neck on the line or theirs.
Some argue that no-one really wants the job any more, that it is too much of a poisoned chalice – but politics doesn’t work like that either, and there will be someone, somewhere prepared to grasp the opportunity.
All is not quite lost for Mr Brown. But he knows that the sands of time are now fast running out on him.